One thing that is very important in Swahili culture is greeting your elders with respect.
You will find this extremely prominent on any visit to East Africa, particularly the Swahili speaking regions.
In fact, they even have a special greeting, just for your elders.
You may have heard this word before: Shikamoo (pronounced shee-kah-mor).
Shikamoo is a very interesting word, and a very important word to remember during your visit to Tanzania or Kenya.
Literally, the translation of shikamoo is “holding your feet” or “holding your leg”.
But the cultural translation of the word is, “I offer you my respect”.
Upon hearing your shikamoo, the person you are greeting will most often smile (especially if you’re a foreigner!) and respond with the greeting marahaba.
Marahaba is a word derived from Arabic, almost certainly from the Arab historic Arabic slave and spice trade in the coastal region. It is literally translated as “I will bless you”, but in conversation is understood to mean “I accept your respect”.
So how do you use this greeting?
Whenever you see someone who is obviously older than you, you do not say jambo or mambo. That is seen as somewhat disrespectful, as an elder should always be treated with more respect than your friends and brothers and sisters.
Instead, you say shikamoo, and the person shall respond with marahaba.
Often, he or she will then follow that with hujambo. To which you would respond? Sijambo.
This is in line with the custom of always greeting each other multiple times in Swahili.
Shikamoo is used in all situations. Children will say it parents, grandparents and aunties/uncles. Students will say it to teachers. It is always used between strangers, when a significant age gap is apparent.
If someone is only 3 or 4 years older than you, it is usually fine to greet them with mambo or hujambo. However, when a decent sized age gap is apparent, always remember to use shikamoo. Not only is it respectful to the person you are greeting, it also shows that you are making an effort to respect the language itself.